Changing Weather, Changing Plans

I’ve just left Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Ontario, after finishing the winter retreat period plus another month.

When I arrived, it was a typical Canadian winter. Slowly I watched the icy and snow capped landscape gradually thaw and transform into spring. By the time I left, the lakes had thawed, the trees were budding, and the grass was an electric green.

Which recycling category do raccoons fit in?


Brrrr!

Inukshuk


The retreat itself went well. Perhaps not in a way of deep concentration, but insights nonetheless. When you spend day after day with a handful of people on a regular basis, the experience becomes a giant mirror on your interpersonal habits. How do you respond in a skillful way (hopefully) when someone pushes your buttons? And you also find how you push other people’s buttons as well. How does each situation feel? Where is the suffering? When all our usual distractions are removed, habits become more obvious. 

For example, while I love alone time, if I’m around other people, there’s a tendency for me to talk. Sometimes a lot. I was able to look at this and see where it came from, and when it causes difficulty. Am I now quiet and reserved? Hardly. But there is at least a new awareness around it. And also an awareness that it’s not always a bad thing in some situations, and not necessarily a problem unless I make it one. So there’s a bit of acceptance as well. I’m willing to call it progress.

Amidst all this personal work was time making new friendships and strengthening old ones. The community of monks and lay people here is quite a warm, welcoming group, and one I feel comfortable returning to.

It’s a long story, but tonight I’m headed back to England to Harnham Monastery, which I visited last year. I’ll still have limited internet, but will try to post again from there.

Be well and happy, dear readers!

Winter Retreat at Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, Ontario CA

Morning time, and all is quiet, except for the sound of my boots, crunching through the snow.Wind blows cold, making the -14C (10F) seem much colder. It seeps through my thin cotton pants, reminding me that another bottom layer would have been a good idea.

Oh well.

I choose a quiet road, where no vehicles have been since last night’s snow. The animals have been busy here however, and I see footprints of deer, rabbits, foxes and coyotes. Snow still covers the branches of the trees, unmelted as of yet by a sun that’s shining through a thick curtain of clouds.

I reach a nearby lake, still frozen to some degree, but not enough for me to comfortably test. I stop to enjoy the immensity of the frozen form, the enticing islands in the middle of it. To enjoy the quiet. The vastness.


Walking back, I hear a conversation between two old trees, creaking and moaning as they sway in the wind. 

“Oh, my joints ache” 

“Oh, me too. And my lumbago is acting up: I got no rest last night!”

“Yes, I heard you groaning all night”

I return to the monastery, where the guests stay in a beautiful old farmhouse. It’s my quiet day, on which I have no responsibilities, other than to take time to be present and enjoy the space, and spend time with the mind.

The six of us here have the pleasant task of keeping the monastery running while the monastics and long term lay residents are on retreat. It’s not an onerous job by any means, and we have plenty of quiet time as well. It’s a lovely bunch of people to be with, and a wonderful, peaceful place. 
**Just as a side note, there is very limited internet time here, so I’m not following blogs while I’m here. So if I haven’t “liked” or commented on your posts lately, it’s not personal. I’ll be back into the blogging world in May. Maybe.

Finding Balance

During my recent travels, for the most part I was removed from American politics. I could watch what was going on in both the American and local (wherever I was at the time) political arena as an outsider, which lent itself to equanimity.

I can’t say that I was that involved before I left, but I could certainly see a sense of self revolve around political events and my reaction to them: this leader was “bad”, this other was “good”. I liked some policies, others seemed misguided at best. That duality was somewhat encouraged by the crowds I was within. Not because anyone suggested doing this, but because we all shared the same opinions.

But finding myself in other countries, it was easier to remove myself from political views and opinions. Not that I didn’t have them, but their pull was not as strong. Events in the states were occurring halfway around the world, and without constant access to television, I heard less about them. Locally, not being a citizen, I had no influence over what happened, which granted a certain freedom. It’s easy to be equanimous when one isn’t directly involved (The Indian demonetization excepted).

I have to say that the equanimity was a relief. A freedom to put views and opinions at a distance and say, in the words of one of my teachers, “It’s like this”.

In the Buddha’s time, monastics were instructed to stay out of politics. The idea was that monasteries should be a place of refuge for those of any political party, and no one should feel like they wouldn’t be welcome. Also, there was a higher goal of maintaining equanimity and losing the sense of “this is mine, this is I, this is my self”.

And while I don’t fall under the requirements that monasteries do, I still would like to think that I could have positive exchanges with people of opposing views. That the practice of metta wouldn’t be limited to political party, and that all would feel welcome in my presence.

Even as a lay-person, equanimity is still a goal. So at first, when I returned, my goal was to stay out of the political world, holding on to that equanimity with all my might.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Thanks to a regular exposure to views and opinions from both sides, I found myself in a quandary. When faced with actions that can cause harm to a large group of people, is it fair to stand aside and do nothing? As a layperson, I have no precept or constraint to stay out of politics. So the question I’m facing is this: can one find a balance between standing up for what one believes to be right, yet maintain equanimity? Can one recognize and resist when harm is being done without holding to views and opinions?

I haven’t figured out the answer yet. I believe somewhere in watching the mind, and seeing what leads to suffering and what doesn’t is the key. It’s a work in progress. I suppose that’s why they call it a “practice”.

Out with a Bang

Before and after the trip to Wat Pah Nanachat, I spent two full days out and about in Bangkok. My hotel was convenient for getting to and from the airport, but not so much for to and from the main part of the city. That being said, it was easy to find my way around Bangkok by way of the metro system.

Like metros in other cities, Bangkok’s system has handy maps at the stations, and arrows all over to help you on your way. The cars are clean and the lines take you to most of the major tourist and other stops. Other than rush hour, it’s pretty uncrowded. During rush hour is every bit fitting of the image one can conjure of a crowded subway car. But in a humorous way, since the riders are able to go with the flow.

During one ride, I watched more and more people climb on. Those of us that were standing close smiled at each other, and although we didn’t speak, conversed with our eyes, saying “this is crazy, na?”. At each stop, it seemed like there was no way any more people could fit in the car. And then five more people squeezed in. Again at the next stop, and the next one. I never saw anyone stay behind at the station, saying “oh, forget it”.

As we piled out like lemmings, I made my way to the Grand Palace. Instead of one building, it’s a combination of more, and has been home to the successive kings there. It’s also the home to Wat Phra Kaew, where the emerald Buddha is kept. Sitting upon a giant dais, the emerald Buddha is actually made from Jade, and is 75cm high. No pictures are allowed inside the temple, but there is plenty to photograph outside.

img_1408img_1436img_1451

The highlight for me that day was Wat Pho, the home of the reclining Buddha. Perhaps it was the absence of crowds, but even though I enjoyed the palace, I enjoyed Wat Pho even more. It was a peaceful, beautiful place one could get lost in, filled with all the ornamental gold and building finery you could imagine.

img_1470img_1499img_1507

As evening drew near, I was on my way to the exit when I heard chanting. I went in the temple to discover about two dozen monks chanting parittas, aka blessing chants. I sat down and enjoyed the atmosphere for a while before twilight approached.

After I returned from Wat Pah Nanachat, I took the metro again to the river taxi, and rode along the river to the northern end of town for less than 20 Baht. There is a tourist boat that costs 150 Baht to hop on and off all day, or one can take a few individual trips. I went up and back, so it wasn’t worth paying for the tourist fee.

img_1552img_1554img_1584At the north end of town is an old fashioned market with all forms of food, clothing, and various trinkets. It wasn’t too crowded, and I really enjoyed wandering around, taking pictures of all the things for sale.

img_1597img_1596img_1599img_1600

img_1601
“Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads…”

img_1604Looking for another similar market, I ended up in two rather upscale malls. While the malls were unique, I found the market experience much more agreeable.

img_1648
Sculpture outside the mall. Ummm….what?

The next day I relaxed at the hotel before going to the airport a bit early. Having waited all day in Indian train stations, waiting here was a breeze. Clean, quiet, and with lots of stores and restaurants, I had no difficulty just hanging out. Once I got through security and customs, I was amazed and even a bit overwhelmed with the number of shops available.

img_1658
Available at the airport: your very own monk bank

And thus began my 24hour trip to get home. I arrived two days ago, and am still a little jet lagged. But I must say it feels good to be back. I’ll be staying in rural Pennsylvania with my folks for a while, then staying at a monastery in Canada for a few months (yes, I’m going to freeze my….off). While I enjoyed this trip for the most part, it’s been a bit long. Traveling can be fun, but long haul travel is an excellent opportunity for seeing the value in putting down roots.

And so I will trust in the universe to show me where to plant myself.

Retreating to Wat Pah Nanachat 

Wat Pah Nanachat is a Buddhist monastery in northeastern Thailand that belongs to the Thai Forest Theravadan school of Buddhism. It was founded by Ajahn Chah (a renowned monk in that tradition) in the early 70’s as he had an increasing number of western students. At Wat Pah Nanachat the western monks could receive the same training given in other Thai Forest monasteries, but in English until they gained some proficiency in the Thai language. Many of the western monks in this tradition today started out at this monastery, and I wanted to spend some time there.

I had originally planned a longer visit, but travel fatigue and diminishing funds shortened the Thailand portion of the trip. Still, this was definitely the highlight of my time in Thailand, so I thought I’d share the experience, and in a slightly different way…
From Bangkok, you decide to take the scenic twelve hour train route to Ubon Ratchathani. To make things more interesting, you decide to go third class on a friend’s advice. So early in the morning you go to the train station (which lacks the grime and smell of urine that you’re used to at train stations), buy your ticket and find your seat by the window. 

The train is pretty empty. There are rows of benches facing each other on both sides of the aisle, and fans overhead. The coach is fairly clean. A few people step aboard, hoist their luggage in the racks overhead, and begin speaking to each other and occasionally to you, in Thai. A melodic language of which you understand very little, if any. You find yourself wishing you had studied a little more Thai before you got here.The train takes off and you feel the wind on your face as you watch at first buildings, then rice paddies go by. It’s a moving picture that keeps you entertained in between trying to communicate with the friendly people who sit near you and trying to identify the food that the numerous vendors bring by.


You see little packages wrapped in banana leaves and know from experience that sticky rice is usually inside. You summon up the courage to by some for a minimal price and proceed to open a small breakfast of sticky rice with sweet beans inside. 

You’re not disappointed. A bit later you decide to try another dish. While you prefer vegetarian food, the only options seem to be meat. Half chickens on a stick. Fish on a stick. Pieces of pork on a stick. You go for the latter and hope for the best. Later, of course, they bring the vegetables – slices of something between a cucumber and a squash with sweet chili powder. You eat all this along with a Thai iced tea before noon and call it good.

The scenery and hours go by until you reach Ubon Ratchathani, and finally your hotel. Knowing you’ll have to be up before the crack of dawn for the next few days, you turn in early.
And wake up in the early morning running to the bathroom. 

Your head is aching like your worst migraine, you feel hot, then cold, and spend the day throwing up. And wondering, was it the pork? You’ll never know, but you’re certainly not going to the monastery today. You’re thankful that you didn’t eat anything in the evening yesterday. It’s not until later that evening that you can tolerate sips of fluids, and the headache begins to subside.

The next morning is a new day, you’re feeling 90% better and you head to the monastery. Behind the gates of Wat Pah Nanachat is a forested area that feels like another world. You find the large, open sided meditation hall and sit down with a mat on the marble floor. 


About two dozen monks arrive in ochre robes, sit down at the front of the hall, and chant a blessing. Then they go to the kitchen to receive food that has been prepared and offered to them. Like the monastics in the Buddha’s time, they rely completely on the lay community for food: whatever is offered is what they eat for that day. No calling Domino’s Pizza or running to 7-11 for snacks. The monastics are fed and given shelter, and the lay community benefits by receiving spiritual guidance and examples of ethical behavior. It’s a two way street that ties the two together. In addition, the monastics are required to finish their meal before noon. At Wat Pah Nanachat, the meal is offered at 8 am and finished well before 9. 

When the monks have been served, you join the other guests in taking the meal. You then meet with the monk who arranges guest lodging. Visitors to the monastery are expected to abide by the eight precepts, and are asked to turn in electronic devices during their stay. Even though you use it often, you breathe a sigh of relief at cutting the internet cord for a while.
You’re taken to the women’s section where you’re assigned a meditation hut, called a kuti. You’re given a reed mat to sleep on, a blanket, and a pillow. You have your own sheets. There are no beds – it’s just the mat. You’re also given black skirts and grey tops that are the uniform of women visitors. Male visitors wear all white, and after a week’s time are required to shave their heads and eyebrows like the monks do.


There’s nothing scheduled until three in the afternoon, so you have time for personal practice. Even though it’s January, it’s still warm enough in the day that you struggle to stay awake. Finding a walking meditation path, you observe the sensations in your feet as they make contact with the air and earth. You can almost feel the presence of Ajahn Chah here, urging you to do so much walking meditation that you make a rut in your waking path.

At 3:00 you join the other visitors in sweeping leaves, and at 4:30 you have tea time. Mostly this entails drinking sugary beverages to get an energy boost for the rest of the day. You have just enough time to go back to your kuti area to take a cold shower before going to the meditation hall at 6:15.

The evening Puja, or meditation service, starts with chanting in English and Pali. If you’re interested, here’s a link to some recordings. The chanting is finished, and now it’s time to watch the breath, with varying levels of success. Your mileage may vary. But by the end of an hour, the mind usually settles down at least a little, and you peacefully return to your kuti to fall asleep.

What? Is that the alarm already? It can’t be!

Oh, but it is. 0300. Time to get ready for morning Puja at three thirty. Same routine of chanting and meditation, but the newness of the day brings another dimension. And once you get used to it, it’s not so bad. You can even do walking meditation at the back of the meditation hall to stay awake.

You spend an hour doing some cleaning, and then are released until seven to help with setting up the food line. And a new day begins…


After traveling around for so long, staying at WPN was a taste of coming home. I had an encouraging talk with Ajahn Siripañño at the end of my visit there and my stay was a peaceful conclusion for the journey. 

I did spend a day wandering in Bangkok before and after the trip, which I’ll write about later, but Wat Pah Nanachat was both the draw and reward for coming to Thailand, so I wanted to share this first.

Odisha and the end

My friends from Kolkata took me on a few day trip to enjoy Orissa (or Odisha as it’s now known). We started in Puri, and stayed in a government run tourist lodge on the beach. I could sit and watch the waves all day, and enjoyed watching the sun rise on the eastern shore. Unfortunately, one single female can’t possibly want to enjoy time by herself on the beach, and soon a group of teenaged boys appeared to keep me company. I had slightly better luck when accompanied by my friend Samata, but even then we were attended to by vendors and beggars. Sigh.

It’s hard to make the “selfie pout” and not laugh at the same time!

The group of us went to Jaganath temple, although foreigners aren’t allowed in. Just as well for me, as simply looking at the crowds going inside brought on feelings of claustrophobia. I was quite happy to admire it from outside.


We also visited the UNESCO world heritage site of Konark temple. Built in the mid 13th century, Konark was a temple erected for Surya, the Sun god. The temple has many stone carvings on the walls depicting family life and erotic couplings that rival Kajuraho and the Kama Sutra. Sadly it was filled in with stone in 1903 for “preservation”, and even now many of the stone wall carvings are being replaced by flat stones purportedly for the same reason. It does seem like some censorship might be behind this, but I can’t say for certain.


After Puri we headed inland to Bubaneshwar. On the way we visited the site of the battle of Kalinga (the former Odissan kingdom). In 260 BCE, the Mauryan emperor Ashok waged a great battle against the Kalinga people. He won at great cost, and when he saw the massive carnage of the war he had waged, pledged to live a peaceful life and converted to Buddhism. He created a great deal of helpful programs and rules of tolerance which modern leaders could learn from today.

Our last historical visit was to the Pushpagiri ruins. There were sites of Buddhist monasteries from the 6th through 12th centuries and may have served as Buddhist universities of sorts. Now, being ruins, they are remains of the great structures battling the destructive forces of both nature and mankind. However, they were peaceful and interesting places to visit, and reminders of the Buddha’s words that “all conditioned things are impermanent”.


And thus is this trip to India. Five months in India seemed like such a long time before I came, and now it is drawing to a close, gone in a flash. India has been both exhilarating and exasperating. She has reminded me that control is an illusion, and has taught me other lessons as well. I’ve seen, heard, tasted, learned, and experienced so much that it may take another few months to process. But I’m very grateful for the experience and will continue to carry India in my heart.

So with that I’ll leave a humorous list:

Ten signs you might have been in India for too long:

  • It’s perfectly normal to find you’re covered in dust at the end of the day.
  • Instead of being surprised when people ask to take a selfie with you, you start posing with them, or charging them ten rupees.
  • You not only know how to use a dipper and bucket, but also prefer it to a shower.
  • You think it’s perfectly reasonable that cows, goats, dogs, or monkeys should be walking down the road or on train platforms.
  • You have an inexplicable urge to use an ATM if the queue is short.
  • You’re able to hold your place for a train seat or line among fifty others pushing and shoving for the same.
  • You ask the chai wallah to give you more sugar because the chai isn’t sweet enough.
  • You bargain better than the locals for a good price.
  • You no longer think your life is going to come to an abrupt end every time you get in a rickshaw or try to cross the street.
  • And the number one reason: you can’t wait to return to your home country, yet you’re already planning where you’ll go the next time you come back.

Giving and receiving

I’m still in India, somewhat hiding from the travel scene for a bit. I’m staying with friends who have hosted me each time I’ve been in India, at their home here in Kolkata. Amid the traffic, pollution, people and general craziness, their home is a loving refuge, and they’re a large part of how I came to hold so much love for this country.

Nine years ago I was doing research on coming here. I started talking to someone on a photography website about the area, and after much correspondence, he invited me to stay with his family when I arrived. He met me at the airport and brought me to their house, his wife fed me to the gills with delicious food, and his family welcomed me in, truly making the trip. They showed me around Kolkata and gave me a gradual immersion into the culture here. I now call them my Bengali family.


For the last five months I’ve been traipsing around India, mostly on my own. And while I will certainly remember the beautiful places and rich experiences here, it’s been the kindness of so many people like these that have kept me going. People who have temporarily “adopted” me; feeding me, looking out for me, giving me advice and generally taking me under their wing. Sometimes it was just simple honesty from a rare rickshaw driver who asked for a fair price instead of charging the tourist three times the going rate, or a local stepping in when the drivers weren’t so honest. Very often it was simple curiosity and being friendly towards a lone stranger in their midst.

All these things will not be forgotten, and I am very grateful.

Here in India there aren’t the usual Christmas cues that one gets in the west. It may be snowing up in the Himalayas, but certainly not here. Temperatures are low for Kolkata, but still practically balmy. I haven’t heard any Christmas music on the taxi radios, and have seen very few Christmas decorations. 

But what I have received throughout the trip is more consistent with the meaning of the holiday season, which is good will, love and generosity of heart.

In that spirit, I have also been able to see the results of generosity given to others.

I first visited a school set up by my friend and others for disadvantaged children near Kolkata. The students, who might not have a chance otherwise, are being trained in regular school subjects as well as trades, and are given room and board also. My friend and his colleagues volunteer their time to teach these energetic young students, and it makes a great difference in the lives of the children.


I also was able to meet a child I’ve been sponsoring through Children International for the last few years. For about $1 a day, CI helps to provide tutoring and school fees for the children in their program, along with medical check-ups and some helpful gifts throughout the year. I’ve been slowly getting to know this girl through letters, but it was wonderful to see her shy smile in person, and to meet some of her family members. The day started with seeing the CI center, then visiting her house and meeting her family. We all went from there on a shopping trip at a local store, where her family was able to receive some household items and a toy for her. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt so see them be able to get these things that we take for granted. 


So for this holiday season (and always) may you be both the recipient and donor of an abundance of love, generosity, and good will, no matter where you are.

Peace